If you’re trying to improve your health, the first stop is likely to be your doctor’s office. But your own office may have nearly as much influence on well-being, according to a growing body of research that suggests your job can affect everything from mental health to risk of cardiovascular disease and how long you live.
“Health happens everywhere,” says Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association. Given that the average employed U.S. adult spends more of their waking hours working than doing just about anything else, that includes the workplace, he says.
Work-related stress is one culprit for health problems, since unmanaged stress can contribute to heart disease, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, and other chronic conditions. Long hours on the job can also cut into time that would otherwise be spent sleeping, exercising, cooking, seeing loved ones, or doing other activities that can boost wellness. Such problems are most effectively fixed when employers change workplace conditions, rather than leaning on workplace wellness initiatives as a Band-Aid, says Laura Linnan, director of the University of North Carolina’s Collaborative for Research on Work and Health.
“We can provide all the coping strategies and stress-management programs possible,” she says. “But if we put employees back in an environment where the work pace is out of control, the staffing is wrong, there’s a toxic supervisor—no amount of stress management is going to save that.”
Here’s what the research says about how work affects health, and a few ways bosses and employees alike can make the workplace better for everyone.
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Find control and meaning in work
Autonomy in the workplace is a powerful thing, Linnan says. Studies show that the level of control someone has over their work predicts how their job will affect their physical and mental health, sometimes more than workload alone. On the flip side, lacking autonomy is a known risk factor for burnout, a condition characterized by feeling exhausted by, disengaged from, and cynical about work.
Some workers will naturally have more say over their time and tasks than others, Linnan says. But even in a highly regimented setting, she says, bosses could ask, “What would make this job better for you?” and use that feedback to determine how shifts and breaks are scheduled, for example.
Studies also show that people who find their work meaningful may experience improved well-being, as long as they don’t work too much or become overly invested. So, if workplace culture allows, employees could consider proactively bringing ideas to their managers and asking for tasks that align with the work they’d like to be doing.
But, unfortunately, not all companies and managers are open to that kind of feedback. That, Linnan says, is where the “reawakening for unionization” in the U.S. comes in. “There are organizations that just haven’t moved the needle at all, and employees are not going to stand for it,” she says.
Acknowledge and reward good work
Fair pay is the most obvious and impactful form of workplace reward, and one with clear links to better health. But research suggests even verbal acknowledgement, such as bosses praising or thanking their direct reports for their work, can improve employee well-being.
In a recent study, men who felt they put forth a lot of effort on the job but were not adequately rewarded for it (as measured by whether they felt they were compensated fairly, had good promotion prospects, and got enough respect from peers and supervisors) had a 50% higher risk of heart disease than peers who felt fairly recognized. There was not as clear a link among women, but the study’s co-author noted in a statement that reducing stressors at work—including an imbalance between effort and reward—could have other health benefits for people of all genders, potentially including decreases in depression.
Create flexible work environments
Demanding workplaces can contribute to health problems. But some studies also show it’s not that difficult to make a meaningful shift. “You can change work, and actually in a relatively short time,” says Lisa Berkman, a social epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
For a paper published in 2023, Berkman and her colleagues studied two very different workplaces: an IT company and a long-term health care provider. In both, managers were trained on how to be more supportive of employee work-life balance, and supervisors and employees together looked for ways of streamlining work—such as by taking some meetings off the calendar, or minimizing time spent on administrative work. After these programs were put into place, workers saw measurable improvements in sleep quality, psychological wellness, and heart health, the researchers found.
Studies have also shown that four-day work weeks improve employees’ mental health, sleep, and physical activity levels, further underscoring the benefits of flexible working hours. True four-day work weeks may not be possible for every industry, but companies taking part in pilot programs have found workarounds, like assigning different departments within a company to work different days and letting employees take a couple of half days per week.
Foster social support in the workplace
Socializing at work may seem unimportant—or downright emotionally draining—but it can be surprisingly beneficial, experts say. Some research even suggests people who have strong social support at work have a reduced risk of premature death, in addition to better mental health and job satisfaction.
You don’t necessarily need to make close, personal friends at work. Even relatively small interactions, like chatting with coworkers after a meeting or checking in with them after a hard day, can go a long way, research suggests. It’s also up to managers to create environments in which employees feel free to build social connections, and to check in with their direct reports to see how they’re doing as whole people—not just workers.
That mentality, Linnan says, is key to workplace health more generally. She points to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Total Worker Health Program as a good model. It seeks to improve all domains of employee health, from risk of on-the-job accidents and illnesses to psychological well-being—a marked contrast from classic workplace wellness initiatives, which tend to focus on narrow goals like boosting physical activity or encouraging smoking cessation. “Overall well-being is about mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, [and financial health],” Linnan says. “They all interrelate.”